iSimangaliso’s Grassland Loop re-opens for visitors!

19 Dec 2016

One of the Eastern Shores section’s most beautiful and rewarding game drive loops – the 18km Grassland Loop – is once again open to tourist traffic after the completion of the Bhangazi Berm bridge.

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The Bhangazi Berm was officially opened on Monday by (above left to right): Mr Siboniso Mbense (Environmental Planner iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority); Mrs CP Mbuyazi (Secretary Bhangazi Land Claimants Trust); Mr R Mfeka (Treasurer Bhangazi Land Claimants Trust); Mr Sizo Sibiya (Park Operations Director iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority); Andrew Zaloumis (CEO iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority); Mr MQ Mkhwanazi (Mayor Mtubatuba Municipality); Mrs SJ Gumede (Chairperson Bhangazi Land Claimants Trust); Security detail; Mrs Sithembile Khumalo (Area Manager iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority)

The rebuilt bridge has been carefully designed and constructed to enable one of the incredible spectacles of this wetland eco-system which is the occasional migration of African Catfish also known as barbel (Clarias gariepinus) between the fresh water Lake Bhangazi and the Mfabeni Swamp.

The previous bridge, which collapsed during heavy rain a couple of years ago, had consisted of two round concrete pipes. Repairs to the existing structure were not possible, and the proposed ‘free span’ bridge would have cost several million Rands, far exceeding the available budget.

Explaining the ecological consideration during the rebuild, iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis said, “Rather than just replace what was and knowing we did not have the required budget, we did a temporary repair on the pipes and undertook technical engineering and ecological work with Janice Tooley of ACER, the late Roddy Ward and engineer Freek Serton.

“I had previously noted that barbel were trying to move from Lake Bhangazi to the Mfabeni Swamp and saw that a very large number of the fish had moved out of the lake, up the channel to the pipes under the road. Here they could go no further as the flows were low and all the water was passing to the side and underneath the pipes. The migration of the fish had been prevented by the failure of the pipes under the road. The result was that an estimated 50 000 to 100 000 barbel – all around 50 to 60 cm in length – were trapped in the narrow channel (i.e. 10 to 20 tonnes of fish). My concern was that the urge to move upstream in flowing water meant that many of these barbel could die there if we experienced hot and dry weather, trapping them in a drying channel.”

It was therefore imperative that the new design mitigated against this.

“We then put our heads together with our consulting engineers MBB, and constructed a fit-for-purpose ‘portal culvert’ that meets the requisite environmental requirements including unrestricted flow of water between Lake Bhangazi and the Mfabeni Swamp when either is fuller, and the free movement of fish. This is a very special system as there is a tilting water gradient and the water is pure due to all of the catchment into lake and swamp originating within the Park. Our new solution also only cost 40% of what the free span would have cost.”

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Peat soils from the Mfabeni Swamp put tannin into the water which, when flowing from the swamp to the lake, sets the barbel into an absolute frenzy. The lake literally boils with activity as they scramble to migrate to the swamp. The males have a series of elaborate dance-like ‘fight’ moves that they do between one other, so that the ‘winner’ can access the females. From ‘mating’ only 24 hours lapse until the eggs are laid. Twenty four hours later, hatching spawn swim free, releasing thousands of baby fish into the system. This quick turnaround as well as finding new water helps them to avoid predators.

According to estuarine ecologist Nicky Forbes, “One of the original major early works on the sharptooth catfish, Clarius gariepinus was conducted here in iSimangaliso in Lake Sibaya by Dr Mike Bruton. These fish are highly dependent on rainfall and waterlevels, more so than other fish which inhabit the same water bodies, such as the Mozambique tilapia Oreochromis mossambicus. The catfish wait for suitable environmental conditions before spawning and make massive spawning aggregations that occur from September to March, usually at night after heavy rains in areas recently inundated with water. This is a clever strategy as these newly wet areas have not yet had a chance for predators to move in. Males fight with each other to win the right to proceed to the courtship stage with the females, andwith these rituals taking place in vegetated shallow water areas. A female will release about 50 000 eggs on average. Eggs hatch within 24 hours, usually the night after spawning and the larvae attach to plants for a few hours to strengthen. Development is rapid and the larvae change quickly into fingerlings which can swim strongly within 48 hours and they begin moving into deeper water.”

“Areas like the Mfabeni Swamp are extremely important in this life cycle as spawning aggregations will target these areas where shallow vegetated water exists. The movement between deeper and larger water bodies such as Lake Bhangazi and the shallow plant-rich waters of the Mfabeni Swamp is a one of the natural wonders that may be encountered in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.”

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Above is Burchell’s original drawing done in 1811 of the sharptooth catfish – the first time it was described and named (after the river it came from, the Gariep (Orange). It was also one of the first two freshwater species to ever be described in South Africa.
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Lake Bhangazi holds a particularly important place in the hearts and traditions of the original inhabitants of the region, the Bhangazi community. The photo on the right was taken in 2002 with three of the elders. Zaloumis recalls this very special occasion as not only the first rains after a prolonged drought, but also the first time he and they witnessed the barbel migration.

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It is not only the lake and its fascinating inhabitants that makes this Grassland Loop drive a highlight of a trip to the Eastern Shores. Starting south of Cape Vidal, the single-direction road runs past the picturesque Lake Bhangazi where visitors may alight from their vehicles and take in the beauty of this haven for hippo and water birds. Further on, the arching forest canopy gives way to glimpses of the swamps before curving southwards and up towards the unique red dunes of Ezibomvini. At this viewpoint, one sees the iron-rich soils to the west and sweeping views of grasslands and one of the most pristine swamp forest systems to the east, against the backdrop of some of the world’s highest vegetated dunes fringing the shoreline. There is a good chance of encountering buffalo, waterbuck, kudu, zebra and wildebeest in the area. The road eventually crosses the Nkazana stream before heading back to join the main tar road.

Thandi Shabalala, iSimangaliso’s Tourism Information Officer, highly recommends the route. “When it is too hot, windy or wet to enjoy Cape Vidal beach, or even after a perfect day in the sun and sea, the Grassland Loop and other game drives offer a wonderful way to experience some of the beautiful scenery and wildlife of this section of the Park.”

Media enquiries should be directed to Bronwyn Coppola +27 83 450 9111 or bronwyn@abetterworld.co.za.